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'More than just numbers': Denver sees record number of drug overdose deaths in 2023

2023 drug overdose deaths in Denver are the highest ever recorded
Posted at 9:39 PM, Jan 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-10 00:16:43-05

DENVER — According to data from the Office of the Medical Examiner for the City and County of Denver, the number of drug-related overdose deaths in 2023 is the highest ever recorded.

The office reported 522 people died from an overdose in 2023, with 342 of the deaths related to fentanyl. As a comparison, there were 207 total drug-related overdose deaths in 2018, with 17 deaths related to fentanyl.

“I wasn't very surprised, honestly, to see how much they had gone up. We could feel that workload here all year," said Dr. Sterling McLaren, assistant medical examiner and chief medical officer for the City of Denver. “I think it's frustrating. I really hope we can come up with some ways to help people.”

McLaren said roughly 100 cases were awaiting final results from completed autopsies as of Tuesday, meaning some have not received toxicology results yet.

“The 522 number may still rise, and probably will," McLaren told Denver7.

The largest problem seen in 2023's drug-related overdose cases came from the use of multiple substances at one time, according to McLaren.

“Most of our drug overdose deaths involve more than one substance... It's not just fentanyl, but it's also methamphetamine and other drugs. The reason I mentioned methamphetamine first is it's most commonly seen in combination with fentanyl," said McLaren. “Had we given Narcan, would this person who died from fentanyl and methamphetamine still be alive? It's really hard to say.”

McLaren said the City of Denver is working diligently to address the issue.

"I'm hopeful that we've got some things in the works, and that we'll be partnering with the right community partners and making good decisions on how we can approach this from a few steps backwards, right? Like, we need to go back in time and figure out where can we prevent these deaths, and I think that the city is working on a lot of those efforts right now," McLaren said.

Denver sees record number of drug overdose deaths in 2023

Unfortunately, Brooke Perez deeply understands how critical it is to examine best practices to support those experiencing substance use disorders. Perez lost her older sister, Krystle, in 2017 to a drug overdose. She then lost her older brother, Kevan, in 2020 to an overdose.

“Both [Krystle] and Kevan struggled with addiction for over a decade. And so, we knew it was coming. And they were both on and off homeless and in treatment facilities. And so it was very much a struggle for all of us," Perez said. “I didn't just lose them, I also lost a part of me. My life was surrounded by them and everything they did. And you know, we were all a year apart, and so we did everything together. And so really, I had to find who I was again. I was no longer a sister. And just trying to navigate and find out who I am in this life now, it was pretty hard — and still is.”

Perez believes those living with substance use disorders do not get the attention and resources they deserve, and said the increase in Denver's drug overdose deaths is indicative of that.

“What are we doing to prevent that?” Perez asked. “Because of that stigma attached to it, you see unhoused people living on the street, and people walk by them and act like they're scum. You see someone that says that they're addicted to heroin, and they look at them as like a no-good person. And it's the stigma that's attached to it. I feel like, if that stigma was erased, eradicated, if it was gone from our society and people were more helpful and welcoming to this disease, with mental health as well, you know, where would we be? What would that look like?”

She founded a nonprofit in honor of her two siblings called KK Fearless, which hosts benefit concerts to raise money for treatment facilities. Perez said music was chosen as the basis of the foundation because both Krystle and Kevan were musically gifted.

"They always turned to and gravitated towards a music instrument while they were in treatment," Perez explained. "Seeing what it did for them on their journey was really powerful, and so that's what we hope to do with this organization.”

Perez hopes to open a coffee shop that employs individuals who are coming out of treatment and need a job. She managed a coffee shop for a few years and would love to see her nonprofit achieve that goal.

Perez said the best way to support KK Fearless is through monetary or instrument donations.

Ultimately, she hopes the community understands the 522 people who died from drug-related overdoses in 2023 are not a statistic.

“These people are more than just numbers. And that's what I've said with my sister and brother is that I'm not going to let them go down as just a number," Perez said. “All of those people, they're more than just numbers.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, there are resources to help. You can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) confidentially, for free, at any time day or night. The number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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